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Beds, bathhouses and the Gobi Desert

BAOTOU, Inner Mongolia — My former student Diamond is particularly pleasant. She has a round face, a big smile and eyes that twinkle as though she is always thinking of something very amusing. She is one of the sweetest people I know.

When I sent Diamond a text message reminding her that I would not be arriving at her Baotou home alone, she immediately replied with this: “Excuse me Dan could you please tell me the sex of your traveling companion?”

I told her it was Johnson. Diamond, aka Chen Wen Yi, remembered him from my class and said she was excited to see him again. And I thought everything was fine. I didn’t realize this revelation sent Diamond into a tizzy.

You see, Diamond, 20, and her mother share a small two-bedroom flat. In fact, Diamond warned me via text message that her place was a “slum. :)” (she ends all of her messages with a smiley face). But that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that Johnson was a man.

Diamond could sleep on her bed. Her mom could sleep on the couch in the living room — she often does this anyway. But that only left one double bed. And somewhere in her schooling, Diamond read a report that said a foreign man would never share a bed with another man — and if he did, he was surely a homosexual.

Diamond, evidently, did not want to turn her English teacher into a homosexual.

“So I dare not ask you to do this,” she explained later.

I explained to Diamond that Johnson and I had been sharing a bed for the past several days, and we both still liked our girlfriends very much. Sharing a bed was no problem. Cleanliness was our major concern. Personal cleanliness. We didn’t bathe much in Haoyi. In fact, on the train ride to Inner Mongolia, I actually had trouble remembering the last time I changed my underwear.

Yes, the bed was fine. What we were really looking forward to was showering … separately.

Uh oh. Another tizzy.

I was never really clear on what was wrong with Diamond’s water-spraying apparatus — it wasn’t really a shower — but it was made semi-clear that we weren’t supposed to use it. Something about a crack in the floor and leaking into the apartment below, I think.

But, no problem. There was a public shower facility right down the road. Four RMB (50 cents) would buy you all the hot water you wanted. I suppose that article Diamond read years ago didn’t say anything about how foreign men felt about showering naked with other men or what doing so suggested about their sexuality.

But I didn’t care. I was dirty. I needed to shower. And anyone who has played high school or college athletics is no stranger to dropping trou in front of members of the same sex. Besides, bathhouses are part of Chinese culture. There have been movies about it. I was just doing research.

And, my friends, research ain’t always pretty. Basically, my first Chinese bathhouse experience amounted to Johnson and I showering together in what had the look and feel of a janitor’s closet. I don’t like showering in place that appears to be dirtier than I am.

So I did the delicate dance, trying to touch as few things as possible, trying to make sure my bare feet never touched the ground — this can be tricky when getting dressed — and trying to find the least offensive place to set down my towel.

I completed my shower quickly. Johnson called his the best shower of his life. (Later, I gave him an opportunity to take that statement back, or at least explain it. He likened it to seeing water after being lost in a desert. At that moment, any shower would have been the best he had ever had.)

After our trip to the grasslands, we again headed to the bathhouse, this time opting for a comparatively luxurious locale: the men’s sauna at some giant neon monstrosity called the Ju Long Food and Amusement Plaza. This place was RMB 48 ($6) and made me feel a different kind of dirty.

This was a full-service bathhouse, with saunas, hot tubs, massages, showers and even special little showers for your feet. Johnson was convinced the full-service went even further back in the private rooms, but we didn’t stay long enough to find out. All I wanted was a shave and a shower, and those two things ended up taking the better part of two hours.

You strip down in the locker room and are given three things: a key to your locker, sandals and a towel about the size of a wash cloth. No robes. No bath towels to wrap around your waist. This is China, where same-sex nudity is healthy and normal, where men often walk the streets in only their underwear, where you can buy nude “art” magazines on just about every street corner, where the state-run media’s website often publishes sexed-up photo montages, where there is no sex education in the schools, where the average citizen’s attitudes towards sex are so reticent even the mere mention of the word “sex” makes people visibly uncomfortable, where scenes with even mild sexual content are often hacked out of foreign films by government censors — and where you can go to prison for life for running a porn website. What was it Mao said about contradictions?

Anyway, I asked for a big towel. They gave me one. And I wrapped it around my waist. We Americans have plenty of contradictions, too.

The main room of this bathhouse was decorated like the 1990 Bloomsburg High School homecoming dance. It had fake rock formations and large fake trees covered in Christmas lights. It had arched wooden bridges and lots of boys sitting around together doing nothing. There seemed to be an inordinate amount of massage boys — actually most of them should probably be called men — for a place that only had four massage tables that I could see.

This meant I had an audience for my shave, because the sinks were situated right near the massage tables, and thus right near the cadre of massage men who wore yellow shorts and nothing else and seemed tired of watching their colleagues give old men full-body rub-downs. So, why not watch the white guy shave off 10 days worth of growth?

It was perhaps the most disconcerting shave of my life. Because on one side of my mirror I could see the yellow shorts discussing my every stroke, scrutinizing my every rinse. On the other side was a naked fat man lying on his back, getting lathered up — everywhere — by a man wearing yellow shorts and sponge gloves. It was a vigorous massage, and the old man’s body shook like Thanksgiving cranberry sauce from a can.

I headed to the Jacuzzis next, partially because they looked interesting, mostly because they were as far away from the massage tables as possible. They were what amounted to four contoured underwater lounge chairs with water jets. It was actually quite comfortable. But, 100 percent naked, I couldn’t help wondering how often they cleaned the water … and which one of the fat old men used the seat before I did.

There were three small pools in the room, filled with water labeled hot, medium and cold. I skipped the cold, found things floating in the medium water and settled into the hot pool for a while … until the feeling of my bare ass on the slimy marble made me really uncomfortable.

I took my shower and got out of there. Johnson and I left the bathhouse feeling somewhat cleaner — still straight — and ready to share yet another bed.

“This is the biggest sky I have ever seen,” Johnson said upon our arrival in Baotou. And, in fact, Baotou did remind me a bit of Bozeman, Montana (for my non-American readers, Montana is known as “Big Sky Country”). Baotou is flat, void of tall buildings and has cornfields in the center of town. It’s a sprawling city of about 2 million, surrounded by mountains and situated just north of the northernmost reaches of the Yellow River and just east of the easternmost reaches of the Gobi Desert. Diamond told me that Baotou is known as “a watermelon on the edge of a stove.”

And Baotou was refreshingly cool. After a month of sweating, I was happy to put on long pants and long sleeves for a change. Diamond and her mother, 54-year-old Zhao Yu Qin, spend the majority of the year in Shanghai, where Zhao works as a teacher’s aide and Diamond attends Shanghai University. But they do summers in Baotou, because they both spent most of their lives here, and because, well let’s face it, summers in Shanghai suck.

Ms. Zhao kept telling me I should buy a summer apartment in Baotou. Only RMB 50,000 ($6,000), she said. I told her there was a good reason I was bumming beds in peoples’ homes during this trip: I have no money.

Diamond’s mom is actually retired — she was a mechanical engineering teacher — but her RMB 1,000 ($120) monthly retirement pay is not enough for her and Diamond to live on, much less pay Shanghai University’s RMB 4,000 tuition. So Zhao earns an extra RMB 800 a month working at a Shanghai trade school, and Diamond’s aunt helps pay her tuition. Diamond, who would like to be an English teacher after graduation, helps out when she can. During the summer she tutors Baotou high schoolers in English for RMB 10 ($1.25) an hour.

But if there was a financial strain on Diamond and her mother, the two tried their best to hide it. There were always meals awaiting Johnson and me. Often, catching us unaware, they would pay for things — you’ve got to plan ahead, scheme, have cat-like reflexes, to beat a Chinese host to a bill. Zhao, who is originally from Liaoning province in the northeast, even did our laundry. I started it, and then she pushed me out of the way and did the rest. I often feel guilty being a guest in China.

I got along well with Diamond’s mother. Or at least I think I did. We couldn’t communicate much, but I have a feeling, if we could have, we would have made each other laugh. A nod and a wink can say so much. Like her daughter, Zhao had this look about her, a thoughtful look, a bright smile and a squint that made you want to know what images were dancing around in her head. Johnson had long conversations with her and enjoyed them. “She’s a typical northerner,” Johnson said. “Loud and warmhearted.”

We went out for dinner one night to a local dumpling restaurant, meeting some of Zhao’s friends, friends she has known most of her life. As teenagers during the Cultural Revolution, they served in the Construction Army and built houses together in nearby Linhe. One of the ladies had a very young daughter with her. It was not her first, and I asked Diamond how she was able to get around the one-child rule.

“She paid money,” Diamond said.

“You can do that?” I asked.

“I think in China you can pay for anything.”

The women were very kind and ordered lots of food and — as Chinese women are trained to do — tried to force Johnson and me to eat every last bite of it. This was a problem, for no matter what I ate during this portion of the trip, or how much of it I ate, it ended up eating away at my insides. I am intimately familiar with the tiny confines of the toilet at Diamond’s apartment (and I think my legs are now more defined because of it).

Diamond and her mother were aware of my problem — it’s a small apartment — but still they kept offering to buy me special Inner Mongolian toasts and cheeses.

“No,” I insisted time and again, “I really don’t think that’s what I need right now.”

“But it’s delicious!” was often the response.

It was on this part of the trip that I learned traveling in China can be frustrating and confusing for native Chinese people as well. Johnson and I always seemed to be walking the wrong way, getting on the wrong train, forced to ask strangers for directions — and, in China, that is never fun. Often people won’t make eye contact, they won’t say a word, they’ll just point off in a direction, vaguely, and walk away. Others want to be helpful, but unfortunately they have absolutely no idea where the place is you are looking for. They won’t tell you this, of course — that would be losing face — so they concoct a convoluted set of instructions and send you on your way. It’s always good to seek a second opinion, and then a third. Hopefully, two of the three stories are somewhat similar. Often they aren’t.

I’m not sure exactly who to blame for our confusion. Usually, Diamond and her mother gave us specific directions, written out in some cases, and then they would appear to confirm the plan verbally. This was all done in Chinese, mind you, but since Johnson always seemed to be smiling and nodding — and since they were speaking his native language — I figured everything was OK. But each time, the apartment door closed behind us, Johnson looked perplexed. He claimed Diamond and her mother were giving him two different stories, or different versions of the same story. Something was different. Johnson, by the way, also happens to have an awful sense of direction.

So, when traveling to nearby Resonant Sand Gorge, the start of the Gobi Desert, Johnson and I paid four times what we were supposed to, because we bought tickets for the last stop instead of the correct stop. It actually kind of made me feel better about some of the troubles I’ve had while traveling alone.

On the train, we sat in a booth beside a booth occupied by several young children. I could hear shy “Hello’s” coming from the group, and then about 15 minutes into our trip, little heads began popping up behind me, peering over my shoulder. One of the heads finally spoke — “Where are you going?” it said in English — but disappeared before I had a chance to reply. Then another head emerged and said, “What is your name?” I answered, and the head giggled and disappeared back behind the seat for good.

We passed fields of corn and sunflowers, bright green and healthy — and then there it was. The desert. Suddenly. Abruptly. Huge dunes of sand that appeared to have been placed there by some giant dump truck. I realize deserts have to start somewhere. I just didn’t expect it to happen all at once.

There is no actual train stop at the desert, but the train still stops. You hop out and there are vans (RMB 2, 25 cents) waiting to drive you to the initial steep incline of sand that gets you into the desert. To get you there, the vans must drive into a dry riverbed — a tributary of the Yellow River, I was told — that contains more than a mere puddle of water only after a heavy rain.

Entrance to the area is RMB 25 (around $3), and after the tough and tiring hike to the top of the dunes, there are many more ways for you to spend more money. This is the desert in China, after all. You could take a ride in a big tourist truck (RMB 35), a John Deere jeep (RMB 50), on a 4-wheeler (RMB 50) or on the back of a camel (RMB 60 for an hour). You can also roll around inside a giant plastic ball (RMB 35) or go parasailing (didn’t get the price). Most of the Chinese tourists opted for the camel ride — led by a man who is walking, the long camel trains plod along slowly — and the toboggan slide back down the dunes (RMB 20). Many also threw down RMB 10 for a pair of brightly-colored booties to slip on over their dress shoes. The booties seemed to go well with their tour-group caps (but I suggest wearing Tevas). Oh, there is also a cable car if you don’t want to make the hike up or down. It’s RMB 50.

Johnson and I hiked around for five hours — the weather was actually quite comfortable — and we marveled at the movable mountains before us. It was unlike any landscape I had seen before, all shadows and subtle variations of color, all stark contrasts between sand and sky. The desert is Mother Nature’s Etch-A-Sketch. Don’t like the way it looks? Shake it up and try again. Nothing is permanent. Kind of like a modern city in China.

Hiking through the desert, I learned that Johnson has an excellent English singing voice. I also learned that he has mastered the non sequitur.

“One good thing about the sand,” Johnson said at one point, “no rotting bodies. Just dry bodies. Dry bodies are clean.”


And, after seeing some women burying their bodies in sand, Johnson offered this insight: “Probably menstruating. Warm sand will make them feel better.”


Sometimes it’s nice not being able to understand what people are saying.

We needed to catch the 3 p.m. train back to Baotou because it was the only train back to Baotou, so we got back to the riverbed in plenty of time. We sought out our van driver, who was seated at a stand where he and his wife sell food and drinks and silly straw hats to tourists. It was about 2:40 and our driver was sipping on a beer. He told us to take a seat and have a rest.

“But what time do we leave to go to the train stop?” we asked.

“Not now. Don’t worry. I guarantee you will not miss your train.”

So he asked me some questions. It went something like this:

“Is it true that all Americans can vote?” he asked.

“If you are 18 or older. Yes.”

“How many political parties do you have?”

“Two major ones. A bunch of minor ones.”

“Who do you like: Kerry or Bush?”

“I will vote for Kerry.”

“Bush likes war. Who do you think Americans will vote for?”

“I wish I knew. I think it will be close.”

“It’s not like our government. We have our representatives.” And with that, the man laughed sarcastically.

It was now past 2:50. We once again asked when we were going to leave to catch the 3 o’clock train. Again, he said, “Not now.” And then, at 2:55, he started eating a bowl of noodles.

“Sir, don’t you think it is getting a bit late?”

He slurped a noodle and said, “The 3 o’clock train always arrives at 3:30. Or later.”

And he was right. We boarded the 3 o’clock train at 3:45.

When the ticket girl made her way down the aisle to where Johnson and I were sitting, naturally she turned to speak to Johnson. But then she did something that caught everyone — especially Johnson — off guard. She spoke in English, near the Inner Mongolian desert, to a Chinese guy who has lived his entire life in China.

“Do you have three yuan?” she asked Johnson.

Johnson appeared flustered. “Uh …” he muttered, glancing over at me quizzically, as if to say “What the f—k?”

“Is this separate or together?” she then asked.

“Uh, together?” Johnson replied in English.

She handed Johnson the receipt and walked away, speaking Chinese to everyone else in the car.

“Well, that was weird,” Johnson mumbled.

Once we arrived in Baotou, we didn’t have much time. We had tickets on an overnight train to Beijing that was departing in a couple hours.

We were warned that getting these tickets would be difficult, impossible even, because it was the second half of August and thousands of college students were heading back to school. But Zhao’s former boss, the principal at her school, came through big time for two guys he had never met. Two sleeper tickets. The exact day and time that we wanted to leave.

“I don’t know what his connections are,” Diamond said, “but they must be very good. These are very special tickets.”

Diamond and her mother purchased and packed two big grocery bags full of food for our journey. I didn’t have time to inspect the contents until I was settled on the train. There were grapes, an entire watermelon, a variety of breads — and four packs each of Inner Mongolian toast and cheese.

I felt my stomach grumble. And then I felt my phone vibrate. It was a message from Diamond:


Click here for photos.

09.07.2004, 3:46 PM · Inner Mongolia, The Trip


  1. These posts just keep getting better.

  2. Diamond is sweet, reading your post is like watching a documentary, even better.

  3. Hi Dan! Although this’ll be my first comment on your site, I’ve been following your trip all along the way. Sounds like you’re having a great time.

    Your writing is excellent. “Thanksgiving cranberry sauce from a can” is a line that I’ll have to remember, especially since that’s what I’ll be looking like if I don’t start getting in more exercise.

    Shout-outs to Bloomsburg and its slightly less famous neighbor Danville!!

  4. Hi, Dan. Nice writing! Although I am from China, I have not travelled a lot as what you are doing now. Reading your articles is kinda a way of travelling in mind. Thanks for your vivid lines. And Bon voyage!

  5. Dan,you are a professional jounalist!

  6. this is the first time i’m reading your online journal, and i love it! looking forward to your next post =)

  7. It is pleasant to read your article and it’s just
    Take care and Bon voyage:=)

  8. As a Singaporean of Chinese descent, reading your journal has been very educational. I’ve never been to China, and don’t feel an emotional connection with it…at least not one i’m aware of.

    Hope you don’t mind me linking to your journal on my blog!

  9. dan,
    the following story was just posted by reuters. could this possibly be the bathhouse you were at?

    Boiler Kills on Impact After Sauna Launch
    1 hour, 56 minutes ago

    BEIJING (Reuters) - A boiler that exploded at a Chinese sauna sailed over a six-story building and landed on an old man crossing the road, Xinhua news agency said.

    The 63-year-old pedestrian was killed instantly and three people injured in Sunday’s bizarre accident in Baotou, Inner Mongolia, Xinhua quoted local police as saying.

    “A passerby tried to escape when he saw the large object flying toward him, but he was hurt in his leg,” Xinhua said. “Two workers in a restaurant next to the bathhouse were also injured after a wall of the restaurant collapsed.”

    The explosion of the boiler, measuring two-meters (six-and-a-half-feet) across, is under investigation.

  10. Sam,

    It very well could have been. Although, it also very well could have been another place. There are many bathhouses in Baotou.

    Interestingly, I know the writer who wrote the AP’s version of the incident (very similar to the Reuters blurb). She sent me the following note:

    “read your inner mongolia entry today and really enjoyed it. great stuff! thought you might enjoy the brief i wrote up BEFORE i read the entry. imagine my surprise….”


  11. dan, to me u seem like a dickhaed. but ur posts are still somewhat interesting, so keep it up.

  12. Don’t get full over Mongolian cheese and toast. From what I think from your entry here, sounds like you could eat Mongolian cheese and toast only for 2 days.

  13. do not curse so much duuuuuuhhhhhhhhhhhh

  14. Hi Dan.

    I a) came back to Shanghai from a trip through the south of China a couple of weeks ago and b) just stumbled upon your diaries and started reading them. So a) have to confirm everything you wrote about travelling in China (acquiring the knowledge that “zai qianmian” actually means “I have no clue, go and ask somebody else” proved to save us lots and lots of trouble - still not all of it - travelling CHINA after all) and b) like like like your site a lot.
    Keep up the good work.


Shanghai Diaries is a website about Shanghai, China ... and lots of other stuff. Voted Best Mainland China Blog in the 2004 Asia Blog Awards.

Editor: Dan Washburn

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Dan is a freelance writer living in Shanghai. More about Dan.

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